Browsing the archives for the Strategies and goals category.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      


A Simple Mnemonic for Being on Time

Strategies and goals

boarding a train at sunrise

Lateness isn’t an enormously complicated problem, but a lot of us have trouble with it, whether from time to time or on a daily basis. A few years back, I posted How Not to Be Late: The 8 Principles of Being on Time, which has become one of the most popular articles on this site. That post covers the most practical information I can offer about lateness. For most of us, I believe those 8 ideas cover everything we have to do to conquer it.

Yet ideas are one thing, and putting them into practice is another. It takes time, effort, and attention to remember and use new behaviors, while for many of us, all three are in short supply. With that in mind, I put together a mnemonic that covers the four steps we can take to master lateness. I still strongly recommend reading How Not to Be Late, which covers both actions and attitude, but from there we just need a single word. That word is EAST, as in where the sun comes up in the morning (a time of day when lateness is especially common, which I mention in hopes of making the word itself a little easier to remember). Here’s what it stands for:

  • Early planning
  • Advance preparation
  • Set aside time
  • Tackle priorities first

Here’s a bit of explanation for each step:

Early planning: One of the mistakes many of us make is not thinking about being on time until the clock is already ticking. For instance, if I have an hour’s worth of things I really need to do before I leave, and I start 45 minutes before go-time, I’ve made myself late long before I walk out the door. Early planning means being aware of the event, knowing everything I’ll need to do to prepare, and having a good idea of how long getting ready will take.

Advance preparation: We identify the list of things we’ll need to do in the “early planning” step. Advance preparation can cross things off that list long before there’s any danger of lateness. Some examples of things that can be done in advance are gathering information, packing, preparing food, finding items that need to be brought along, planning routes, figuring out travel time, looking up telephone numbers, and picking out clothes.

Set aside time: This item isn’t needed for any task for which we can walk out the door (or pick up the phone) at a moment’s notice, but if we need to get cleaned up or dressed, get information, gather items, take care of things around the house or office, eat, or complete any other tasks before being free to head to the thing we want to be on time for, it’s necessary to set aside enough time to get those tasks done. It’s crucial to identify the true total amount of time that will be needed and to avoid cutting time we’ll need or being overly optimistic. Failing to handle this step well probably causes most incidents of lateness.

Tackle priorities first: When getting ready, starting with the most important tasks can let us be punctual even if something goes wrong or if preparation takes longer than expected. For example, if leaving to catch a train, it makes sense to ensure the ticket is at hand before, say, having a leisurely breakfast. The lower-priority items at the end of the process can often be sped up or skipped, but if we leave the most important tasks for last, that option disappears.

Putting EAST into practice
Using EAST will take a little effort up front: it requires fully understanding each of the points and memorizing the four terms. It won’t help me much to remember “EAST” if I forget what “S” means, for instance.

I’d recommend bookmarking this article, printing it out and putting it up somewhere you can easily refer to it, or to saving it to a smartphone or other device you’ll have on hand when you need it until you have the terms down and you’ve used them a number of times.

As always, please share this article on Facebook, Twitter, or other networks if you find it useful.

Photo by David Ashford

No Comments

Randall Munroe Tells You Whether or Not It’s Worth the Time

Strategies and goals

It’s no secret that I think Randall Munroe often presents things through his XKCD comic that are not only well worth knowing, but that pertain specifically to living a better life. His most recent (as of this writing) is an especially practical example.

Is it worth the time?

A couple of useful things we can do with this chart:

  • Consider areas in our lives where it might be worth some time thinking about improvements.
  • Consider things we’re doing to make life more efficient that might not be worth the trouble.

 

No Comments

Don’t Know, Don’t Believe, or Just Don’t Care?

Strategies and goals

hanging onWhy do we so often have trouble following through with the way we want to be and act? Unfortunately for me, I face this question all the time. Having made a study of habits and motivation, I have an almost endless supply of tools and tricks to get myself out of a bad mood, figure out what to do next, or get on track–yet even though these tools and tricks have made a huge positive impact in my life, I still manage to be far from perfect. Sometimes I’m late despite knowing exactly how not to be late; sometimes I become disorganized despite having terrific organizational systems at my disposal; and sometimes I fall short on goals or fail to change in the way I’d like to. Why? It seems to come down to three kinds of problems: not knowing, not believing, or not caring.

Here’s an example: recently I’ve been doing some reading that brings me to believe that the advice we’ve been given for decades about how to fend off heart attacks and strokes and all of that is completely wrong (see my recent article “Wait–Eating Lots of Fat Is GOOD for Your Heart?“). Once I’ve decided that what I’ve read is compelling enough to act on, why wouldn’t I become instantly and completely compliant with all of the new guidelines I’ve learned? After all, it could be literally a matter of life and death.

Don’t know: Before I started reading up on the “fats good, sugars bad” perspective, I had lots of misinformation that was fed to me–and that continues to be fed to me–by mostly well-meaning nutritionists, government officials, and doctors. If I don’t have good information, I can’t very well act on it. It’s very hard to change a habit, for instance, without knowing how habits work (by the way, this site has a number of clear, specific, and carefully researched articles on that subject).

Don’t believe: There are different versions of the belief problem, but one example is plain old doubt. For instance, I might find Dr. Peter Attia’s posts about fat very compelling, but still be nervous to switch to a fat-driven diet because I have a hard time believing that almost all of the information I’d received on the subject in the past was wrong.

Worse, and perhaps even more common, is lack of belief in ourselves. If I don’t believe I can make a change in my life, then all of my efforts in that direction will begin to seem pointless, and it will be very hard to keep myself going.

My belief might be from old information I’m having trouble letting go of, or new and conflicting information, even if it’s from the same old sources or if I know the information I already have is better. Maybe I have friends, family members, coworkers, teachers, colleagues, or role models who don’t believe what I believe, and that’s making sticking to my guns harder.

Don’t care: Perhaps worst of all is when I know what to do and I believe it will make a difference, but I just don’t care at that point. Maybe I’ve had a rough day or a bad night’s sleep and don’t feel as though I can put the effort into one more thing. Maybe I’m concentrating on the things I don’t like about what I’m doing or on things that I can’t or shouldn’t do if I want to pursue that goal instead of on what I can be doing next or on what inspires me. Sometimes I might just not be able to get up any enthusiasm for working on a goal that might never be realized, or that would only have an effect in the distant future. Or it could be that I’m just distracted, preoccupied with other things and not able to spare the attention and interest.

Regardless of which of these problems I have, realizing that I’m faced with a problem in knowledge, belief, or caring makes an instant improvement. Asking myself what I don’t know can lead me to the information I need, and realizing I’m having trouble believing or caring can lead me back to whatever inspired me to believe or care in the first place. When these kinds of obstacles are addressed, then the problem vanishes as if by magic, and suddenly I’m back on track.

Photo by Sharon Morrow.

No Comments

New Year’s Resolutions for Change from the Inside Out

Strategies and goals

Jason Shen has an interesting blog I discovered only very recently. Entitled “The Art of A**-Kicking,” Shen’s blog focuses on “starting things, conquering fear and kicking a** in work and life.” In late 2010, Shen posted an article on New Year’s Resolutions that I highly recommend: “How to Set Great New Year’s Resolutions (Backed by Scientific Research!)

I’ve written about New Year’s Resolutions before (for instance, see “Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?“, “Why New Year’s Is Such a Good Time to Make a Resolution” and “Taking Stock for a New Year’s Resolution“), and you’ll find a lot of common ground between my posts and Shen’s. What struck me most about Shen’s article, though, is his emphasis on making resolutions about the way you feel. This fits with much of what I know about how people successfully change their behavior, and it struck me as an unusually useful way to come up with a resolution.

Most resolutions seem to be about achieving some external result: losing weight, quitting smoking … that kind of thing. The examples Shen gives, on the other hand, are about changing how we feel about some significant part of our lives. They raise the question “What can I do to feel happier?” or “What would make my lifestyle feel more healthy?” By focusing on how the resolution makes us feel, we get two special advantages: first, we’re focusing on the process instead of the outcome, which tends to be a more motivating approach for a variety of reasons. Second, we’re making a special point of ensuring that the actions we’re taking make us feel the way we want to feel, and that good feeling motivates us to keep pushing ahead.

Examples of result goals and feeling goals
An example: let’s say my resolution is to lose weight; it’s 3 weeks in; and I’ve lost 1.5 pounds after upping my exercise and eating a little better. That’s not bad, but it’s not very inspiring: it doesn’t really feel like I’m succeeding, just maybe sort of a little on the road to succeeding. I’m putting all my enthusiasm into the idea that some time in the future, I will have achieved something big. In the mean time, which could be a very long time, I don’t have much good news to announce.

If instead, though, my resolution is to feel more fit, then every time I complete an exercise session or choose the better food option, I’ve succeeded. It’s not a big success, but successes don’t have to be big to feel good, and anything that makes us feel good is much more motivating than something that makes us feel like a disappointment, or at best a potential someday-success.

Not affirming affirmations
As much as I like Shen’s post, I had some comments to add for my readers here on a couple of thing he mentions. One is his recommendation of affirmations, which from what I’ve seen of the research are often counter-productive. One problem is that they risk creating broken ideas, and even though an affirmation may create an upbeat falsehood (“I look great and am easy to get along with!”) it’s still a falsehood and has all of the drawbacks a falsehood usually has when we treat it in our own minds as truth.

What’s a “goal,” exactly?
I also find Shen’s distinction between “goals” and “resolutions” potentially confusing, depending on how you think about the words. He defines goals as “external targets that rely substantially on things outside of your immediate control” and talks about “resolutions” as being largely within your control. For what he calls “goals” I tend to use words like “aspirations,” and what he calls “resolutions” I and many other people interested in motivation often refer to as “goals,” for instance in the posts “One Good Way to Judge Goals: S.M.A.R.T.” and “What Kinds of Goals Really Work?” With that said, a lot of people use the word “goals” to mean exactly what he describes, too, and I think the way he talks about using the words makes plenty of sense; it’s different from how the word is used in here and some other places.

Both of us, however, are trying to point out an important distinction that the English-speaking world doesn’t usually make, that of  whether we’re talking about something that we can affect ourselves (like finishing a project) instead of something that to a large extent is outside of our control (like getting a promotion).

One thing at a time
Finally, Shen recommends keeping your goals to no more than 2 or 3 at a time. I haven’t yet come across research to shed more light on the question, but my experience and my inference from some of the literature is that adding only one new goal at a time is generally the way to go. Once you’re well on your way with that one, adding another works much more comfortably. The danger of adding too many at once is that of not having enough attention to spare to focus regularly on any of the goals, so they all fail.

The exception to this would be very simple goals, like drinking more water or making the bed in the morning. It appears that we can tackle several small changes more or less at the same time and still see success.

Photo by pennstatelive

No Comments

3 Keys to Living Effectively: Attention, Calmness, and Understanding

Strategies and goals

A number of my posts in coming weeks will make mention of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I was fortunate enough to hear him speak recently in Middlebury, Vermont, and since then I’ve been listening to some of his recorded public talks, which are freely available along with a lot more interesting material at dalailama.com. Thinking about some of the things the Dalai Lama has said, I found myself faced with a question about my own life: I know a lot about how to act in my own best interests, yet some of the time I act as though I only understood short-term pleasures and not long-term happiness. Why is that?

Based on bits gleaned from psychology, neurology, and meditative practice, I came up with three things I need in order to ensure I act in the best way possible–to encourage my own success while simultaneously letting go of stress, overcoming fear, enjoying what I’m doing, and staying in touch with my highest goals and aspirations. It’s a tall order, and the three things aren’t easy. On the bright side, though, they are simple.

1. Attention
A good habit is a treasure, because it takes no special effort to follow. When I show up to Taekwondo several times a week and get a good, long workout, it’s not because I’m thinking about or planning exercise: it’s because I’m used to going to Taekwondo. In the same way, bad habits are serious trouble. In order to break a bad habit, or even to overcome it on a one-time basis, we usually need to be able to direct attention to what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing. We could also talk about attention as having to do with self-awareness or mindfulness.

For example, I might be tempted to sleep in some morning and risk being late for an appointment. It’s difficult to battle this intention if I’m just thinking about how it would feel to stay in bed versus how it would feel to get up, and especially if I have a habit of sleeping past my alarm. However, if I consciously think about things like

  • “If I get up now, I can be on time–and if I don’t, I risk being late”
  • “Staying in bed is pleasurable, but I like showing up on time to things too”
  • “I’ll have to get up sooner or later, and it probably won’t be any easier in 15 minutes than it is now”

… and other things in the same vein, then I’m able to make a decision rather than just succumbing to my gut feelings.

2. Calmness
Buddhist teaching warns about the danger of attachment, of strong emotion. Speaking honestly, I’m not entirely sure how this applies to strong positive emotions like love or delight, though I could make some guesses. What I am sure of is that getting wrapped up in my own emotions and doing nothing about it leaves me in a position where it’s hard to change or do the things that are best for me. Being able to step back from our emotions and out of a frame of mind dominated by thoughts like “I really, really want that” or “I’m afraid!” or “I feel embarrassed” puts us in a place of calmness from which we can think about our long-term interest and our well-being–not to mention other people’s long-term interest and well being. Not having that calmness keeps us confused and short-sighted, bogged down in an obscuring cloud of emotional debris.

This site offers a wide range of tools for working with emotions, even very strong ones, including idea repair, understanding mental schemas, and much else. If I want calmness, there’s usually some way for me to achieve it.

3. Understanding
I started out thinking of this item as “knowledge,” but I realized that it includes not just understanding how my mind works, having good organizational strategies, and knowing how to keep myself healthy, but also ideas of what’s truly important, what leads to real happiness, what the value of a good relationship is, and what kinds of goals are worth pursuing. Having attention and calmness is not nearly as useful when I don’t have the understanding to use that attention and calmness by making and acting on good decisions.

That’s it: attention, calmness, and understanding. If I can remember to look for those three things, my theory goes, I’ll be on top of the world. I’ll report back and let you know how it’s been working for me. I’d be very interested if you care to do the same, whether in comments or privately through the contact form.

Photo by Hani Amir

No Comments

Organization: Useful Principles

Strategies and goals

A reader got in touch with me the other day asking about where to start with task management. While I’ve written a number of articles about different kinds of organization, I don’t believe that I’ve ever tackled the question from the basic question of where to get started with organization as a whole … so here that article is.

Five kinds of organization
At least five kinds of organization can demand our attention, and it’s helpful to separate them in our minds, because each one requires a slightly different approach. Those kinds are:

  • tasks (anything that needs to be dealt with, from a quick decision to a massive project)
  • paper (including mail, reference materials, the kids’ schoolwork, bills, receipts …)
  • e-mail
  • physical clutter
  • information (I won’t go into this in any detail in this article, but see “Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas“)

Useful principles of organization
Some approaches to organization are much more successful and rewarding than others. The following ideas can help move things along:

  • Have a clear system for decisions – It’s much easier to get through a pile or list of items if you have a strict and clear way to deal with them. A detailed working example: if you’re dealing with a stack of papers (or even boxes upon boxes of papers), take a look at the system outlined in “The 8 Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper.” Process one item, then go back to the top and repeat for the next one.
  • Don’t get bogged down when planning – One of the difficulties with, prioritizing a task list or clearing out an e-mail box, for instance, is that it’s easy to get bogged down trying to do one specific item instead of finishing the task of organizing all the items. Except for one situation I’m about to mention, it tends to work best to only organize when organizing–not getting sidetracked onto one specific item, no matter how appealing or pressing that item might be (short of an emergency).
  • Do very quick things right away – Whenever we’re organizing and we come across a form that can be filled out and readied for the mailbox in a few minutes, or a task that will take a very short time to complete, or an e-mail that can be put to rest with a two-sentence response, taking care of that task immediately shortens the to-do list or stack of papers or list of e-mails to handle, and it saves time having to organize and review the item. This is the exception to not doing tasks while planning, because these short tasks won’t bog things down.
  • Categorize & prioritize – It’s great to get down a list of everything that needs to be done, but if we don’t prioritize tasks then we’ll end up doing whatever seems most appealing, easiest, or most obvious instead of whatever will make the greatest positive impact. Categories make it easier to attend to one kind of thing at a time, and priorities are essential for repeatedly answering the question “What’s the best thing for me to be doing right now?”
  • Review regularly – When organizing tasks and e-mail,  regularly going over the lists is an important part of organization in order to remove things that have been completed, bump up the priority of items that have become more urgent, recategorize, and revisit pending items that have gotten stalled. Along with the obvious benefits of this practice, doing regular reviews also helps us have confidence in our own organizational systems. If we just sweep things into categories and never look at them again, then we’ll our system will start failing this, and knowing this, we’ll be reluctant to put important items into it. As soon as we start keeping things out of an organizational system, that system has failed: it then needs to be handled differently, re-energized, or revamped.
  • Organize items once – When an item comes into an organizational system, it’s important to make a decision where to put it then and there. If we set things aside to consider later, then later we’ll just be faced with the exact same choice. By making the choice with each item as it comes up, we can make clear forward progress.
  • All tasks should go to one place – It’s easy for tasks to start growing, like weeds, in many different places. Apart from very basic separations like “work tasks” and “home tasks,” though, that way lies confusion and failure. If I have a computerized task list, a handwritten list for some other tasks, a file on my computer for some other tasks, a few sticky notes, and some e-mails in my inbox that I want to use as reminders, then I have no way to look at all of my tasks together and prioritize them, which means that my system can’t tell me the one thing I need to do next–and a good organizational system can always answer the question “What should I do next?”

In a follow-up post, I’ll provide links to some of the most useful organizational articles on this site and talk about the one book I would recommend above all others for getting organized.

Photo by Rubbermaid Products

No Comments

The Pareto Principle: Useful, Essential, or Just Another Distraction?

Strategies and goals

A recent post on Lifehacker, “Work Less and Do More by Applying the Pareto Principle to Your Task List,” reminds us of an idea that could be the secret to enormous productivity or just another mirage. Perhaps it’s a revelation for some people and a waste of time for the others. I’m talking about the Pareto Principle.

Pay 20, get 80?
The Pareto Principle is the idea that 80% of the useful results we get in life arise from only 20% of our efforts. It’s a tantalizing idea, and it seems to apply to a lot of different situations. It’s named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who noticed that 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of its population. It seems to apply to much more than economics, though, having cropped up in business, health care, software engineering, investing, criminology, and elsewhere. Some research even suggests that it’s a sort of naturally emerging dynamic, something that arises on its own in the natural world.

And yet … your mileage may vary. Is everybody on approximately the same level of inefficiency? Do we all prioritize the same way?

For a parallel, consider Stephen King’s usual approach to writing: he generates a rough draft without being concerned too much about having some sections that don’t pull their weight, but then edits to cut out about 10%. Contrarily, a number of pro writers I know typically see their work expand when they edit it, and often this is a significant improvement.

Wait a minute …
Even setting aside individual differences, I’m dubious about the Pareto Principle being a basic law of the universe. For example, let’s look at traditional employment: does 80% of the income come from 20% of the work time? Absolutely not. It could be argued that in some cases 80% of the benefit to the company comes from 20% of the work performed, but even that only holds up in special circumstances. It doesn’t for teachers, for instance, who in addition to passing along knowledge also provide an environment and structure in which kids can ideally grow and learn throughout the school day. It doesn’t apply to assembly line workers, or to farmers. In fact, the kinds of work where it seems to apply are the ones that are mainly about making choices and not much else. Maybe 80% of your investment income comes from 20% of your investments. Maybe 80% of your published writing comes from the best 20% of your writing ideas. Perhaps 80% of your impact as a middle manager at a widget manufacturing concern comes from 20% of your efforts. Elsewhere, it gets iffy.

And we can’t make good decisions all the time. While I certainly agree with focusing on the most important tasks and on the most impactful decisions, it hasn’t seemed to be the case in the world that people know which of their efforts will pay off in advance–and even when they do, they often have a lot of hard work to do to get to that payoff.

An example that refutes by agreeing
For example, this blog currently gets an average of something over 13,000 views per month. It’s certainly true that a small number of my posts are responsible for most of the search hits on the site: for example, “24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry” accounts for a big percentage of those 13,000-odd views. It’s also true, however, that the prominence of “24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry” on search engines is based in part on the general popularity of the site and the number of links to it from other places on the Internet, and those factors in turn are based on the hundreds and hundreds of posts I’ve written and published over the years this blog has been online.

So Pareto adherents might point to my blog and say “Look, this one post is responsible for a huge percentage of your visits” without understanding that that post alone would be little use without the rest of the site to support it.

To take another example, consider the non-fiction book contract I once got through the agent I got through the writing group I established from people I met attending two writing workshops. Where was the wasted time there? The writing workshops? The writing group? Getting the agent? Writing the book? I’m thinking the answer is “none of the above.”

To put it more simply and pragmatically: a lot this stuff is connected. Should we busy ourselves blindly with trivia day in and day out in hopes that it will all amount to something? Hell, no. On the other hand, we can’t get far by cherry-picking among our own efforts and trying to stick to only those with big payoffs. A sustainable, rewarding life is built on a lot of little payoffs, with big payoffs helping out now and again. The 20% of our efforts that seems to be making the biggest difference in our lives doesn’t stand alone.

Prioritization is the point
With that said, though, I think there’s a valuable point in the Pareto Principle material: it’s well worth comparing how much effort we’re putting in to how much value we think that effort creates. If you spend hours each day doing social media for your business but barely get a trickle of customers from that, are you doing it because you think over time it will build up to become a major asset to your business, or simply because people keep saying everyone ought to do social media? If I do writing exercises every morning instead of working on saleable material, is that necessarily helping my writing so much that it’s worth the lost opportunities?

What about you? Do you see a lot of 80/20 opportunities in your life? Or does the Pareto Principle not seem to hold water for you?

Graphic by igrigorik

No Comments

Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

1. In my last article, I talked about the huge benefits we can get from funneling information into an outline. Outlining is helpful for a single person (or sometimes a group) to take a lot of information and make regular use out of it. In this follow-up, I’ll talk about other ways to organize a lot of information or ideas, with pros and cons for each.

Wikipedia Concept Map by Juhan Sonin

2. One option is to remember only whatever happens to stick and be reconciled to forgetting a lot of it. This is often our go-to method, for instance if we watch a documentary out of personal interest. It’s perfectly appropriate if we’re not going to need to put the information to direct use but just want to be exposed to it. For instance, I haven’t done anything specific with what I’ve learned from seeing God Grew Tired of Us, but it added to my perspective and my understanding of other people’s lives, and I’m glad I saw it.

3. We can go over it repeatedly until it’s memorized, which is the way, for example, we try to learn foreign languages, because we need that information be available in our heads. If I want to go to France and speak with other people there, it’s not going to help me to have a laptop with me so that I can look up verbs > subjunctive > irregular in my outline to help me say “Would it be a problem if I were to go along?”

4. We can leave it unorganized and just go through the whole thing when we need something from it, as most of us do or have done with notes from classes. This can go along with the memorizing approach, but it’s very inefficient if you want to be able to interact with your information and find things in it quickly.

5. We can use a tagging system in which we label each item with all the terms that apply to it, so that in addition to looking at the information in order, we can also filter down to just a particular kind. This is the way most blogs are organized. For instance, you can click the word “organization” in the tags for this post to see other posts of mine on the subject of organization.

6. We can index it, as we traditionally do with books, but this is a lot of work, and my experience is that indexes aren’t used very often unless a person knows exactly what they’re looking for.

7. If it’s information that we can somehow make into images, we can visualize it as a chart, graph, map, or diagram. Visualizing information usually means losing or hiding most of the detail and often comes with a limit as to how much information you can add, but it creates a big-picture perspective that can be difficult to come by otherwise. One approach to this is drawing or using  software to create a “concept map” (also called a “mind map” or “spray diagram”). There’s an introduction to concept maps at http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_01.htm . I must say that I don’t find concept maps especially useful, but they do seem to be fairly popular. If you get a lot of use out of them, your commenting to offer perspective on the issue would be much appreciated.

One popular (and free) concept mapping tool for Windows, Mac, and Linux is FreeMind.

8. Finally, we can link it, making connections between one chunk of information and other chunks of information. This is a lot of work, but it creates an environment in which we can flow freely from topic to another. Wikipedia (one of my favorite inventions of all time) and other wikis are organized this way, as is the Internet as a whole. It’s useful for information that keeps expanding, especially from different sources, but it’s nearly impossible to link together all the topics that might be related to each other, and it’s hard to find all of the pieces of any one particular area of knowledge; more often, we’re just led from one subject to another related one with no clear end in sight.

All of these approaches have their uses, but my sense is that outlining is the most underused and under-rated tool in the toolbox. If you’re comfortable with computers and have a mass of information or ideas to sort out, it may be just the thing to toss into your organizational mix.

3 Comments

How to Make Sense of a Flood of Information and Ideas

Strategies and goals

When I began to get serious about professional speaking, it was clear to me that regardless of how much I knew about my subject (teaching people how to change), that I had a lot of research still to do–on professional speaking itself. I needed to get much more familiar with types of events, presentation practices, ways to structure talks, compensation, how to deliver the most value for my audiences, and so on. To that end, I started reading books and articles and hunting down videos to watch online. A flood of information began pouring in, and I found myself coming up with a steady stream of ideas for presentations and ways to connect. The problem then was to find a way to make sure I could use everything I was getting, that it wouldn’t get lost or forgotten.

This is the same situation a person runs into, for example, when writing a book, getting immersed in a new topic, planning a business, or organizing a large event. What do you do with all this information?

You outline it.

Why an outline?
To make use of a lot of information, we need to categorize it. This isn’t just for convenience: our brains are used to dealing with just a few things at a time. (The limit used to be thought to be around 7 items, but it turns out it’s probably more like 4: for example, see http://www.livescience.com/2493-mind-limit-4.html .)  So if I have 2,000 individual pieces of information to keep track of, I’m going to want to group them into few enough categories that I can easily navigate through the whole thing. Within those categories, I’m still going to have hundreds of items, so I need to group that information further, and so forth. These categories-within-categories make up an outline.

Once I have my outline, I may have sections that have a special purpose, like a to do list (or items to add to my main task management system, whatever that is), questions that need to be answered, people I’ll want to remember, and so on. The great thing about using an outline for this is that I can find a piece of information whether I know what I’m looking for or not. For example, here’s a screen shot of part of my outline for my speaking business. You can click on it to view it at full size. Each of the little folder icons represents either a category or a chunk of text (or both).

If I’m putting a new topic together, I’ll be looking at my Speaking section under “delivery techniques,” and I’ll be reminded of the tip about having one key point under “structuring a talk.” If, in a different situation, I’m trying to remember exactly what I thought was important about structuring a talk, my outline will make the information easy to find.

Creating the outline is easy
The actual work involved in putting an outline together isn’t hard, because all you have to do is take one thing at a time and decide where you want to put it. If you don’t already have a good place to put it, you make one up. If one part of your outline is getting too full, you break things down into a greater level of detail. If you have too many branches off of one item, you can group them into larger branches, for instance grouping a bunch of recipe ideas for an event into desserts, entrees, side dishes, and so on.

When I’m gathering information or brainstorming ideas, I usually start by taking down a whole lot of unstructured notes. Whenever I’m ready, whether with all of it at once or just one section, I can start putting those notes into an outline.

Of course, you’ll need something to create the outline in. Less complicated outlines can be kept in a word processing program, but what’s more useful is a specialized kind of program called an outliner. The screen shot you see is of a free one I’ve been using called Treepad Lite, which you can get at www.treepad.com . There are more sophisticated outliners too, and I’ll probably upgrade to one of those before too long. Suggestions are welcome.

Outlines are made up of “nodes.” Each node can contain information and can also contain other nodes. With a good outliner program, you can have as many levels of nodes-within-nodes as you need, which means that you can branch or group or expand your outline however and whenever you want to.

If the information you’re gathering is meant to end up as a single written piece in the end, I can wholeheartedly recommend Scrivener, which is a kind of hybrid outliner-word processor that can take a lot of material and help you cook it down into something that flows from beginning to end.

In the second article in this series, I’ll talk about the alternatives to outlining and the pros and cons of each.

4 Comments

Have to Do Something and Don’t Want to? Here Are 4 Steps to Get on Track

Strategies and goals

Recently a friend posted in an online discussion forum that she had revisions to do on a book she was writing, but didn’t feel able to do them. This is an accomplished writer, but she found that she just really doesn’t want to tackle rewriting this particular chapter.

I have some suggestions for her, because of course writing motivation is a subject in which I have a passionate interest and on which I’ve done a lot of research. Here was my response, much of which applies as well to other kinds of tasks as it does to writing.

First, may I suggest my free PDF eBook, “The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation“? There’s a motivation troubleshooting section in back that could get you some good answers within minutes

About the specific question, I wouldn’t suggest walking away and waiting for your subconscious to sort the problem out. That definitely works some of the time, but there’s a needless delay involved, your subconscious may very well be preoccupied with other things, and there’s a chance that you’ll let it linger and dread of the work will grow until the project dies for want of just a little industry. Better to face the problem head-on, get used to facing such things in that way, and get the sense of satisfaction that comes from making progress through dedication and effort.

I share the thought that it’s possible you sense something wrong with the story, in that I have been derailed in my own writing sometimes when that was the case. However, it’s also possible that you’re facing fears of what will happen to the story when it’s finished and is finally ready for you to try to sell it or get representation. A lot of us seem to get thoughts like “Is it any good? What if it’s really junk and I’ve spent all that time on it? Can I even do any better? Maybe I’m just a lousy writer. Maybe my success so far is a fluke.”

Alternatively, you might just be associating some bad feelings with the task, e.g., “Man, this is going to be a pain,” or “I don’t even know if I can fix this,” or “I hate revising!” or “Why didn’t I write it well the first time?”

Regardless of the reason, here’s what I would recommend.

1. Sit down now or at your nearest opportunity and commit to making some kind of progress on the work. You don’t have to finish it. You don’t even have to start on it. Instead …

2. Write about your situation. You can write about what you want to change, what you’re feeling about the work, both, or something else related.

3. If you’re not already carried into the work by step 2, next brainstorm as many ways as possible to change it, include ridiculous and stupid ideas, ideas that might require more work elsewhere in the book, cutting things, adding new elements, etc. (See “Writing Differently: Picking Up the Scary Tools“)

Step 2 or 3 is very likely to get you into a mood to want to work on the revision. From out here, the revision looks like nothing more than a pain in the ass. From up close, working on ideas that excite you, it may well start looking like an exciting opportunity. Alternatively, you may discover to your dismay that you think the whole project is horribly flawed, in which case it might be time for feedback, or else to just finish it, send it out, and perhaps discover that you were wrong and it’s terrific.

If Steps 1-3 don’t get you there, then I would recommend

4. Sit down, make a list of the things you need to do, figure out what the first one is, and just start doing it. Don’t worry about if you don’t feel like it, aren’t sure you can do a good job, have other things you need to do, etc. Focus on the task, ask yourself whether it’s physically possible to accomplish it, and if so, do it. Then do the next one. This isn’t forcing yourself: it’s resignation.

Picture by kxp130

3 Comments
« Older Posts


%d bloggers like this: